The Fact Checker: Barack Obama

Barack Obama: the ‘food-stamp president’?


(JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

“We are going to have the candidate of food stamps, the finest food stamp president in American history, in Barack Obama, and we are going to have a candidate of paychecks.”

— Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Dec. 6, 2011, on CNBC

As speaker, Gingrich helped push through the signature welfare overhaul that then President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996. When Clinton, after two vetoes, agreed to accept the legislation, he shrewdly noted that he was eliminating the welfare system forever more as a campaign issue.

“After I sign my name to this bill, welfare will no longer be a political issue,” Clinton said. “The two parties cannot attack each other over it.”

 Having eliminated welfare as a campaign issue, Gingrich now appears to be trying to breath life into “son of welfare” by attacking President Obama as the “finest food stamp president.” But he has explicitly rejected the idea that this is a no-so-subtle form of racial imagery.

 (As is usual, Gingrich’s rhetoric excess got the better of him last month when he also declared people can use food stamps “to go to Hawaii,” a claim that our colleagues at PolitiFact correctly labeled “Pants on Fire.”)

In any case, how accurate is the claim that Obama is “the food-stamp president”?

 

The Facts

 Officially, the food stamp program is now formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is broadly available to almost all households with low incomes, though most of the benefits go to families with children. (It also has massive support from the farm lobby, which is why GOP efforts to cut it back have often failed.)

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Barack Obama: the ‘food-stamp president’?


(JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)

“We are going to have the candidate of food stamps, the finest food stamp president in American history, in Barack Obama, and we are going to have a candidate of paychecks.”

— Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Dec. 6, 2011, on CNBC

As speaker, Gingrich helped push through the signature welfare overhaul that then President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996. When Clinton, after two vetoes, agreed to accept the legislation, he shrewdly noted that he was eliminating the welfare system forever more as a campaign issue.

“After I sign my name to this bill, welfare will no longer be a political issue,” Clinton said. “The two parties cannot attack each other over it.”

 Having eliminated welfare as a campaign issue, Gingrich now appears to be trying to breath life into “son of welfare” by attacking President Obama as the “finest food stamp president.” But he has explicitly rejected the idea that this is a no-so-subtle form of racial imagery.

 (As is usual, Gingrich’s rhetoric excess got the better of him last month when he also declared people can use food stamps “to go to Hawaii,” a claim that our colleagues at PolitiFact correctly labeled “Pants on Fire.”)

In any case, how accurate is the claim that Obama is “the food-stamp president”?

 

The Facts

 Officially, the food stamp program is now formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is broadly available to almost all households with low incomes, though most of the benefits go to families with children. (It also has massive support from the farm lobby, which is why GOP efforts to cut it back have often failed.)

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Obama’s Kansas speech: some suspect facts

“I mean, understand, it's not as if we haven't tried this theory. Remember in those years, in 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history. And what did they get us? The slowest job growth in half a century.”

 -- President Obama, Dec. 6, 2011

 

Channeling his inner Teddy Roosevelt, President Obama on Tuesday gave a feisty speech in Osawatomie, Kan., that sought to rebut Republican arguments that he is waging class warfare. He argued that the issue was one of fairness for the broad middle class, drawing repeated contrasts to the presidency of George W. Bush.

 We’ll leave the politics to others, but how accurate were some of his facts?

 

 “I mean, understand, it's not as if we haven't tried this theory. Remember in those years, in 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history. And what did they get us? The slowest job growth in half a century. Massive deficits that have made it much harder to pay for the investments that built this country and provided the basic security that helped millions of Americans reach and stay in the middle class: things like education and infrastructure, science and technology, Medicare and Social Security.”

 

Inserting the words “for the wealthy” was interesting phrasing by the president, since he suggests these tax cuts were intended to benefit only the rich.  

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Revisiting Romney’s ‘deceitful, dishonest’ ad about Obama

“Senator McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.’”

— Then-Sen. Barack Obama, Oct. 16, 2008

We resisted writing about Mitt Romney’s first television ad when it was released just before Thanksgiving, on the grounds that the issue — whether the ad misquoted President Obama — had been thoroughly and quickly discussed. We sometimes also see little need to fact check items that have been already debunked by one political faction or the other.

 But readers have repeatedly asked us to weigh in, and the ad was once again in the news this week after a report in The New York Times by our former colleague Thomas Edsall quoted an anonymous “top operative” in the Romney campaign as defending the ad because “ads are propaganda by definition…. Ads are about hyperbole, they are about editing…. They are manipulative pieces of persuasive art.”

 Excuse us for appearing cynical, but Romney’s supposed adviser is simply stating a truth practiced by both political parties. We’ve seen plenty of Four-Pinocchio ads in our time, and this Romney ad does not make the cut.

 

The Facts

The ad opens with a headline: “On October 16, 2008, Barack Obama Visited New Hampshire.” Then grainy scenes flash by of Obama speaking as more headlines flash by, such as: “He Promised He Would Fix the Economy…. He Failed”

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How much time is Obama spending on his reelection campaign?


(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Question:  “How much time is he focused on the campaign on a given day?”

White House spokesman Jay Carney:  “On a given day?  I can’t do it on a given day.  I would say on a given week about 5 percent of his time.”

--White House press briefing, Nov. 29, 2011

President Obama obviously is seeking to be re-elected. But the question raised at one of this week’s news briefings is an interesting one: How much time is he spending on getting re-elected? He has a pretty important day job right now, after all.

 We asked a White House official for an explanation of how Carney derived his estimate, and were told it was based on Carney’s knowledge of the president’s schedule. That did not seem like a particularly rigorous accounting (though Carney did not try to claim it was). So we decided to investigate further.

 

The Facts

 The precise details of how the president spends his day are a bit fuzzy, but the White House does release a daily schedule which the Washington Post’s POTUS tracker has meticulously cataloged, day in and day out. The tracker lists every event the White House makes public. Excluding events that turn up as “departing,” “leaving” and “no public events scheduled,” we discover that as of Dec. 1, the president has held 1,134 events this year. (We kept our focus on just this year because that was the context of the question asked of Carney.)

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The debt supercommittee: A guide to the rhetoric


(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

"Despite our inability to bridge the committee's significant differences, we end this process united in our belief that the nation's fiscal crisis must be addressed and that we cannot leave it for the next generation to solve.  We remain hopeful that Congress can build on this committee’s work and can find a way to tackle this issue in a way that works for the American people and our economy.”

— Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), joint statement, Nov. 21, 2011

 

To no one’s surprise, the debt “supercommittee” on Monday officially gave up in its efforts to forge a bipartisan agreement. The process was magically designed to almost certainly fail, given the vast divide between the two parties on issues such as taxes and entitlement programs. In theory, Congress is now obligated to go forward with $1.2 trillion in cuts to discretionary spending, but the cuts do not take effect until January 2013 — meaning Congress gets time to adjust the numbers.

 Given all of the fingerpointing, here is a guide to some of the Pinocchio-laden rhetoric.

 “Simpson-Bowles worked for thousands of hours, bipartisan, Republican, Democrat, people outside of the Senate and elected politics. They came out and said in order to do a deal, you need $4 trillion and you need 2 trillion [dollars] of it as revenue.”

— Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), on Meet The Press, Nov. 20, 2011

Kerry is referring to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which was co-headed by Alan Simpson, a former GOP senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.  

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Did Obama call Americans ‘lazy’ and ‘soft’?

“Can you believe that? That’s what our president thinks is wrong with America? That Americans are lazy? That’s pathetic. It’s time to clean house in Washington.”

— Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in a new television ad attacking President Obama

“Sometimes, I just don’t think that President Obama understands America. I say that because this week — or was it last week? — he said that Americans are lazy. I don’t think that describes America. Before that, I think it was in October, he was saying we have lost our inventiveness, and our ambition. Before that he was saying other disparaging things about Americans. I just don’t think he understands — he was saying we just weren’t working hard enough. I don’t think he gets what’s happening in this country.”

— Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Nov. 15, 2011

Republican president candidates have begun attacking President Obama for supposedly insulting Americans by calling them “lazy.” Perry has even framed a new television ad around the idea.

Since we once gave a Pinocchio to Obama for what we called unsubstantiated boosterism — “We have the most productive workers, the finest universities and the freest markets” — we were a little surprised to learn that he had suddenly turned so anti-American.

What’s going on here?

The Facts

When a president makes a similar offhand comment at least two times, our experience tells us that something is on his mind. Maybe he read a book, perhaps there was a briefing, perhaps he even saw a television documentary. A clear sign that this notion has begun to sink in is that he begins to muse about it in public.

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Steven Chu’s Solyndra testimony: Misleading jobs stats and missing context


(Evan Vucci/AP)

“Through the loan programs, the Energy Department is supporting 38 clean energy projects that are expected to employ more than 60,000 Americans, generate enough clean electricity to power nearly 3 million homes and displace more than 300 million gallons of gasoline annually.”

— Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Nov. 17, 2011, in testimony on Capitol Hill

 “When the bottom of a market falls out and the price of solar decreases by 70 percent in two and a half years, that was totally unexpected, not only by us — if you look at the range of predictions that were being made by financial analysts from the last quarter of 2008, 2009, they — the average — there are some outliers. But the average of those were not expecting these prices to plummet. And so fundamentally this company [Solyndra] and several others got caught in a very, very bad tsunami, if you will.”

— Chu, Nov. 17

In his defense of the Energy Department’s handling of the $535 million loan guarantee to the now bankrupt Solyndra, Energy Secretary Steven Chu made some bold claims about the overall effectiveness of the department’s clean-energy loan programs. He also made the case that the collapse in solar panel prices — which helped sink Solyndra — was “totally unexpected” by most financial analysts at the time when the department went forward with the loan in 2009.

 There are a number of issues in dispute concerning Solyndra, but these two statements by Chu appear to be the most ripe for a fact check because they get to the heart of the issue about whether the clean-energy program is creating many jobs and whether the Energy Department should have seen the red flags concerning the Solyndra investment.

 

The Facts

 We always warn readers to be wary of claims about the number of jobs created by some government, congressional or corporate initiative. These are almost always suspect and based on dubious assumptions. (Chu, we should note, carefully used the word “employ” instead of “create.”)

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Barack Obama vs. Bill Clinton on taxes in the new American Crossroads ad

Announcer: “Two presidents. Two visions.”

 Bill Clinton: “Should you raise taxes on anybody right today?  Rich or poor or middle class.  No.”

 TV reporter: “This morning Obama is scheduled to unveil a new tax on Americans.”

 Obama: “Pay higher taxes…Taxes…taxes…taxes.”

 Clinton:  "I Personally Don't Believe We Ought To Be Raising Taxes…It won’t solve the problem.”

 Announcer: “A political stunt, not a solution. A bill full of tax increases.”

 Obama: “Pass this bill…pass this bill…pass this bill.”

 Announcer: “President Obama, it is time to attack problems, not people.”

--new ad attacking President Obama by Crossroads GPS

 

Crossroads GPS (for Grassroots Policy Strategies) is technically a nonprofit advocacy group that with its partner, the American Crossroads SuperPAC, has a declared goal of raising $240 million in this election cycle. Lately it has achieved some attention for running ads that pit the words of the most popular former Democratic president –Bill Clinton—against the words of the current Democratic president, Barack Obama.

 Clinton issued a statement of protest when the group released a different ad last month, but undeterred, the group released an even more hard-hitting ad last week. In fact, Crossroads GPS spokesman Jonathan Collegio argues that Clinton, in various public appearances since the first ad, has actually undercut his statement of support for Obama’s policies.

  We’ve spent several days going back and forth between the two sides. Let’s take a look at how a delicate snip here and there can create precisely the image a political operative wants to show.

 

The Facts

 The Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994 because of relentless GOP attacks on Clinton for raising taxes (on the wealthy) as part of his plan to reduce the deficit. So we find it mildly amusing to see him depicted as a foe of tax increases.

In any case, if Clinton says he supports Obama’s jobs plan, how does Crossroads GPS suggest he does not? Let’s roll the videotape! 

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Rhetorical flights by Obama and Pelosi


(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

“Well, I think what I would say is that we are nowhere near where we need to be, but keep in mind that when I took office, we had already lost 4 million jobs in the previous quarter and lost another 4 million in the three months when I first came into office.”

— President Obama, Nov. 1, 2011, in an interview with WTVT of Tampa Bay

“From a policy standpoint, I think it's really important to know that President Obama was a job creator from day one. Now was the ditch that we were in so deep that when you're talking to people and they still don't have a job that that's any consolation to them? No, but I'll tell you this: If President Obama and the House congressional Democrats had not acted, we would be at 15 percent unemployment, again, no consolation to those without a job, but an important point to make.”

— House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Nov. 3, 2011

 

With the economy still struggling, Democrats have begun to remind voters how difficult times were when Obama first took office — and to make the case that things would have been worse without the actions that were taken at the beginning of the president’s term.

But sometimes the language can get ahead of the facts, as we noted recently with Vice President Biden.  Both President Obama and House Democratic Leader Pelosi this week threw out some specific numbers. How accurate are they?

 

The Facts

 President Obama’s numbers are easy to check. Let’s go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site and pull the data on monthly job loss or gains from the Current Employment Statistics survey.

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The new and misleading ad about ‘Mitt Romney’s America’

“Unregulated. Isolated. Decimated. Relocated. Privatized. Slashed. Repealed. Mitt Romney’s America is not our America.”

— closing words of a new ad by the pro-Obama group, Priorities USA Action

 Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama group, on Wednesday released a new Web ad that, perhaps unconsciously, evokes memories of the famous speech by the late senator Edward Kennedy, “Robert Bork’s America.” At least one analyst has argued that Kennedy’s attack on Bork launched the “beginning of the end of civil discourse in politics.”

 If this ad is any indication, we’re in for a mean election year.

 Our favorite moment is when Romney utters his somewhat odd defense of companies — “Corporations are people. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people” — and quick images of a suit pocketing money and a corporate jet flash by. Then Romney says, “Where do you think it goes?” and the ad focuses in on the now-famous photograph from a Bain Capital brochure of a young Romney with his pockets stuffed with cash.

 In fact, the ad is so over the top, both in its images and its accusations, that it is hard to believe it would persuade anyone but hard-core partisans. That may indeed be the point — an effort to energize demoralized Obama supporters for the tough fight ahead.

 But that does not mean we can hold it to a lesser standard of accuracy.

 

The Facts

 This ad is the commercial equivalent of the kitchen sink, so we will not go into detail but instead will quickly point out some of its more glaring inaccuracies or out-of-context moments. The group’s Web site provides a helpful list of supposed evidence for the ad, but much of that is suspect, too.

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The Obama campaign’s overenthusiastic job-creation stats

“Well there are larger things we can do. Obviously the American Jobs Act, all economists agree, would have a marked effect on economic growth and would create millions of jobs. We just have to get the Congress to act on it.”

— David Axelrod, senior campaign strategist to President Obama, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” October 30, 2011

 

During an appearance Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” the president’s long-time adviser made a statement that jumped out for fact checking. “All economists,” he said, agreed that the president’s jobs plan would “create millions of jobs.”

 We’ve never known economists to agree on anything. So what are they actually saying about the president’s (stillborn) jobs initiative?

 

The Facts

 The White House has refused to release its own estimate of the potential jobs that would be created, preferring instead to point to private surveys such as one by Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. 

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The origins of ‘leading from behind’

"This was a phrase that the media picked up on. But it's not one that I ever used."

— President Obama on the “Jay Leno Show,” Oct. 25, 2011

 

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The Obama campaign’s spin on the Romney tax plan

David Axelrod, a longtime political adviser to President Obama, held a telephone news conference with reporters last week to attack GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney for remarks he made during a candidates debate held by The Washington Post and Bloomberg News (see full transcript below). In particular, he faulted Romney for appearing to oppose an extension of a payroll tax cut, as proposed in Obama’s new jobs plan. The former Massachusetts governor instead said he was interested in trying “to fundamentally restructure America’s foundation economically,” not “little Band-Aids.”

Axelrod blasted Romney for, in his campaign economic plan, touting the elimination of taxes on capital gains and dividends for people who earn less than $200,000. During the debate, Romney said he had targeted the tax cut because “if I’m going to use precious dollars to reduce taxes, I want to focus it on where the people are hurting the most, and that’s the middle class.”

Clearly, there’s a general-election theme emerging there, and Democrats appeared eager to cast Romney as actually kowtowing to the wealthy.

But there are moments when Axelrod’s spin got ahead of the facts. Let’s take a look at some of his statements.

“You heard Governor Romney essentially oppose the extension of the payroll tax cut that the president is fighting for in Congress as part of the American Jobs Act that would be a $1,500 tax cut for 160 million working Americans or families.”

This is inaccurate. Obama wants workers to pay 3.1 percent of wages up to $106,800 in Social Security payroll taxes, down from 4.2 percent this year and 6.2 percent in a typical year. According to a Treasury Department analysis, when the initial payroll tax cut was instituted, 159 million Americans would get some kind of payroll tax cut.

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Introducing the candidate Pinocchio tracker

We are pleased to launch our Pinocchio tracker for the 2012 campaign, developed with the brilliant assistance of Lori Williams at Tableau Software.

 At a glance, it will tell you how the various candidates have fared in Pinocchio checks. It lists each rating, with a link to the relevant article. If you hover over a candidate’s name, the tracker will also calculate the average number of Pinocchios a person has received. We plan to update this tracker at the end of every week.

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The president’s news conference . . . and readers respond on Pelosi’s debt chart


(JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
In his news conference Thursday, President Obama unfortunately repeated a couple of stale talking points for which he had previously received Pinocchios.

 

“It is now up to all the senators, and hopefully all the members of the House, to explain to their constituencies why they would be opposed to common-sense ideas that historically have been supported by Democrats and Republicans in the past. . . . My expectation and hope is that everybody will vote for this jobs bill because it reflects those ideas that traditionally have been supported by both Democrats and Republicans.”

 As we wrote before, the truth is that Republicans have not supported many of the tax-revenue ideas at all — and on the spending side, key proposals have earned few Republican votes in the past. This claim was worth two Pinocchios, and Obama earns it again.

 

 

“We can afford it without affecting our deficit. Our proposal is paid for. So that can’t be the excuse.”

 This isn’t correct, except under Washington’s funhouse accounting. As we have noted before, the deficit would increase $303 billion more than anticipated in 2012. Obama can claim it is “paid for” because in theory the increased spending is matched by new revenue over a 10-year period. This claim was also worth two Pinocchios for the president.

 

But in other cases, we were pleased to hear the president tweak some of his previous language to make it more accurate.

“Some of you were with me when we visited a bridge between Ohio and Kentucky that’s been classified as ‘functionally obsolete.’ That’s a fancy way of saying it’s old and breaking down. We’ve heard about bridges in both states that are falling apart, and that’s true all across the country.”

 We had given the president three Pinocchios for suggesting that his jobs bill would help with the repairs — years from now — on the ailing Brent Spence Bridge on the Ohio River. At his news conference, the president clearly decoupled his remarks about the bridge and the jobs bill, and made no suggestion that the bill would have anything to do with the bridge.

 

“We can either keep taxes exactly as they are for millionaires and billionaires, with loopholes that lead them to have lower tax rates in some cases than plumbers and teachers, or we can put teachers and construction workers and veterans back on the job.”

 We had looked askance at the president’s rhetoric on billionaires paying lower tax rates than plumbers and teachers, but this time the president added the phrase “in some cases,” making it much closer to the truth. As we noted earlier, this disparity is not a common occurrence.

***

 

Meanwhile, our examination of a bogus chart produced by Nancy Pelosi’s office on Obama’s role in the growing national debt generated many letters and e-mails. Most readers applauded us for exposing a truly misleading chart, but some readers took issue with our alternative way at looking at the growth of the national debt under various presidents.

Some believed it was unfair for each president to be tagged with the interest expenses of previous presidents’ debts; others argued that looking at the ratio of the debt to the gross domestic product unfairly penalized Obama because he is president during a recession.

Several readers did their own research and came up with their own alternative charts. As we stated, the national debt goes up (or in the case of Bill Clinton) down for a variety of reasons, and one can’t pin all of the blame (or credit) on the president.

We appreciate the hard work of our readers to correct what they viewed as our faulty reasoning — and wanted to share the fruits of some their interesting efforts. One of these charts still shows Obama in first position; the other has him just behind Reagan in terms of increasing the debt.

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Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’?


(Associated Press)

“Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map.”

— President Obama, speech to the U.N. General Assembly, September 21, 2011

                                                                                          

“It was only perhaps three weeks ago that the president of Iran once again said that Israel should be eradicated off the face of the Earth.  As you recall, it was about in 2005 when he [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] said before that Israel -- he would use a nuclear weapon to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.”

— Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), September 19, 2011

                                                                                        

“Outrageous statements by Ahmadinejad, such as a pledge to wipe Israel off the map,  made it easier to keep that coalition together. Germany had been considered the weak sister of the group, but after Ahmadinejad’s comments about Israel, the historical burden of the Holocaust made it difficult for Germany to appear too sympathetic to Iran.”

— Glenn Kessler (aka The Fact Checker), “The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy (St. Martin’s Press, 2007), page 188.

 “The Islamic Republic’s proposal to help resolve the Palestinian issue and heal this old wound is a clear and logical initiative based on political concepts accepted by world public opinion, which has already been presented in detail. We do not suggest launching a classic war by the armies of Muslim countries, or throwing immigrant Jews into the sea, or mediation by the UN and other international organizations. We propose holding a referendum with [the participation of] the Palestinian nation. The Palestinian nation, like any other nation, has the right to determine their own destiny and elect the governing system of the country.” 

— Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, October 2, 2011

Almost unnoticed, Iran this week joined the United States and Israel as one of the few countries in the world to oppose the statehood bid at the United Nations by the Palestinians. As the Tehran Times noted, the Iranian supreme leader “condemned any measure which would lead to the recognition of the Israeli regime and would ignore the legal right of the Palestinian people to their homeland.”

In other words, Iran continues to oppose the two-state solution. But does this mean that Iran wants to destroy Israel — “wipe it off the map” — as is commonly cited?  This is certainly the conventional wisdom, as seen in the statements above. But a colleague at The Washington Post, spotting the Bachmann and Obama statements during the U.N. festivities last month, suggested that this widely cited statement by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was actually a mistranslation.

 The Facts

The firestorm started when Nazila Fathi, then the Tehran correspondent of The New York Times, reported a story almost six years ago that was headlined: “Wipe Israel ‘off the map’ Iranian says.” The article attributed newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks to a report by the ISNA press agency.

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A bogus chart on Obama and the debt gets a new lease on life

“Who Increased the Debt? President Reagan 189%. President GHW Bush 55%. President Clinton 37%. President GW Bush 115%. President Obama 16%.”

— Data on a chart floating around the Web this week (an older version of the chart above)

 

This post has been updated since it was first published.

There’s a saying attributed to Winston Churchill that goes something like this: "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." 

 Try as we might at The Fact Checker, we find that no matter how many times we clearly identify an untruth — such as a ridiculous e-mail on Obama’s health-care plan — it still keeps popping up, months later.

 So imagine our surprise when we found in our Facebook feed this week a chart, purporting to show how Republican presidents — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — had increased the debt by a significantly greater percentage than either Bill Clinton or President Obama. Pretty impressive chart, “liked” by at least 7,000 people on a posting by the liberal group MoveOn.org.

 But this chart, originally created by the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, is as phony as a three-dollar bill. Our friends at PolitiFact did a pretty thorough takedown of it in May, giving it their worst rating: “pants on fire.” They even caught the Pelosi people in a bad mathematical error, based on the fact that the Democrats calculated the numbers as if Obama took office a year later than he did.

That error greatly reduced Obama’s supposed percentage increase (from 35 percent to 16 percent) and boosted George W. Bush’s increase (from 86 percent to 115 percent). Pelosi’s office corrected the math error after it was spotted by PolitiFact, but amazingly, the chart that turned up in several places in our Facebook feed was the old chart.

 But even with the corrected number, this is still a Four-Pinocchio whopper. Let’s explain why.

 

The Facts

The person who posted this on Facebook noted: “From the US Treasury Dept — any questions?” But it actually is not a Treasury Department calculation, just manipulated data taken from the Treasury Web site. 

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President Obama’s claim of lower small business taxes


(Associated Press)

“As I said, we’ve actually cut taxes for small business 16 times since I’ve been in office. So taxes for small businesses are lower now than they were when I came into office.”

--President Obama, Town Hall with LinkedIn, Sept. 26, 2011

We’ve been meaning to look into the administration’s claim that the president has cut small business taxes “16 times,” and now the president’s appearance in Silicon Valley has given us an opportunity. (The White House also has claimed as many as 17 small business tax cuts, including a tax cut in a bill signed at the end of 2010.)

The president, in fact, went even further this week and asserted: “Taxes for small businesses are lower now than they were when I came into office.” That’s a big claim. How true is this?

The Facts

The White House first began to cite “16 tax cuts” last year, as the president prepared to sign a small business bill. The fact sheet distributed by the White House stated that bills signed by the president in 2009 and 2010 (primarily the stimulus bill) had yielded “eight separate small business tax cuts,” and that the new bill would add another eight.

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Obama’s strained symbolism at an Ohio River bridge


(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

“There are private construction companies all across America just waiting to get to work. There’s a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky that’s on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America.”

— President Obama, speech to a joint session of Congress, Sept. 8

“There’s no reason for Republicans in Congress to stand in the way of more construction projects. There’s no reason to stand in the way of more jobs. Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge. Help us rebuild America. Help us put construction workers back to work. Pass this bill.”

— President Obama, speech in Cincinnati, Sept. 22

“There are just numerous, numerous projects. This one is symbolic. The fact is that if the American Jobs Act were passed, we could speed up the process of environmental and other approvals on this specific bridge.”

— White House spokesman Jay Carney, news briefing, Sept. 22

Symbolism is a key part of any president’s political arsenal. He visits a school, a factory, a national park or even a bridge to make a larger point about an important issue.

And certainly a trip to the aging Brent Spence Bridge on the Ohio River must have been irresistible to Obama’s political advisers, because not only does it symbolize the nation’s infrastructure crisis but it connects Kentucky and Ohio, where his two main nemeses reside — House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

But is there a point at which the symbolism becomes strained? President George H.W. Bush, for instance, was embarrassed in 1989 when it turned out that the bag of crack cocaine he held up in a televised address — “This is crack cocaine, seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House” — was the result of a drug buy specifically set up to match the words in the president’s speech. “Where the [expletive] is the White House?” asked the drug dealer when he was told the location for the drug sale.

In this case, what is the connection between this bridge and the jobs bill Obama is promoting?

The Facts

The Fact Checker grew up in Cincinnati and knows the terror that motorists feel as they drive across this bridge coming from the airport, which is on the Kentucky side of the river.

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The education of President Obama at the U.N.


(Seth Wenig/AP)
“We continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”

— President Obama, speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 23, 2009

“Israel’s settlement moratorium has made a difference on the ground and improved the atmosphere for talks. And our position on this issue is well known. We believe that the moratorium should be extended.”

— President Obama, speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 23, 2010

“Peace is hard work. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations — if it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”

— President Obama, speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 21, 2011

Call it the education of President Obama. Every year, he has gone before the United Nations and spoken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Every year, his vision has gotten narrower and his language less sweeping. Now he is no longer just trying to forge peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but trying to stave off diplomatic disaster as the Palestinians pursue a statehood bid.

In diplomacy, words have meaning and consequences. Let’s look at the full arc of the president’s statements, from criticizing Israeli settlements in 2009 to not even mentioning the issue this year.

The 2009 speech

Obama was still an international rock star when he gave his maiden speech, and so — somewhat unusual for a speech from the U.N. podium — his remarks on Israel and the Palestinians were interrupted frequently by applause, including the sentence on Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

But Obama’s policy on the Middle East was already in trouble even before he first stood before world leaders. An ill-conceived demand by the administration that Israel halt all settlement activity had led the Palestinians to balk at any direct talks with Israel until settlement expansion was actually ended.

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Obama, taxes and the ‘Buffett Rule’


(Susan Walsh/AP)

“Any reform should follow another simple principle:  Middle-class families shouldn’t pay higher taxes than millionaires and billionaires.  That’s pretty straightforward.  It’s hard to argue against that.  Warren Buffett’s secretary shouldn’t pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett.  There is no justification for it. It is wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker who earns $50,000 should pay higher tax rates than somebody pulling in $50 million.”

--President Obama, September 19, 2011

We have to admit we had overlooked this part of President Obama’s Rose Garden speech until we read David Brooks’s column in The New York Times Tuesday accusing the president of being misleading on the issue of taxes. “He repeated the old half-truth about millionaires not paying as much in taxes as their secretaries,” Brooks wrote.

We’re not going to get into an argument between Brooks and Obama. We understood Obama’s comments to be specific to the situation that investor Warren Buffett outlined in his famous opinion article in The New York Times, in which he noted that he paid a lower tax rate than other people in his office. But, looking at Obama’s words again, we can see why Brooks thought Obama was saying that in general middle-class families were paying more in taxes than millionaires. (For the record, the White House says that was not Obama’s intent.)

Indeed, the plan Obama released on Monday simply states the “Buffett Rule” as this: “No household making over $1 million annually should pay a smaller share of its income in taxes than middle-class families pay.”

But the report never really explains what that means, and administration officials have refused to lay out any detailed proposal.  Already, on average, most teachers, nurses, construction workers and the like already pay a lower rate than people making more than $1 million.

Still, there are so many numbers tossed around about taxes that it seems a good time to take a step back and look at the data. After all, Republicans frequently note that 50 percent of Americans pay no income taxes. So how is it that Democrats can complain that billionaires are paying a lower tax rate than their secretaries?  And does the so-called “Buffett Rule” make sense as tax policy?

The Facts

The numbers are so confusing because the data points are so different. Democrats speak of tax rate averages, and include payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare). Republicans tend to focus on just federal income taxes and marginal rates, which is the tax on each next dollar of earnings.

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Fact checking Obama’s Rose Garden statement on taxes and spending


(Evan Vucci/AP)

Analysts have decreed that President Obama’s speech in the Rose Garden on Monday was a political statement designed to rally his political base rather than engage in real negotiations with Republicans on Capitol Hill — who may be beyond negotiations with this president in any case.

 But we deal in facts. How factual were various assertions made by the president?

 “All told, this plan cuts two dollars in spending for every dollar in new revenues.”

 You have to dig deep into the president’s plan for these numbers, but this claim is suspect. It really depends on what one thinks is the baseline for spending. 

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Obama’s misleading pitch for the jobs bill


(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

“Everything in this proposal, everything in this legislation, everything in the American Jobs Act is the kind of proposal that in the past, at least, has been supported by Democrats and Republicans. Everything in it will be paid for.”

— President Obama, Sept. 14, 2011, Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

We had not intended to wade into this issue, thinking the answer was self-evident, but we have been bombarded with requests from readers who want to know whether the president’s claims are correct.

 Has “everything in this legislation” been supported in the past by Democrats and Republicans?

 Is everything in his $447 billion proposal paid for?

 Seriously, if you really believe any of that, we have the Brooklyn Bridge to sell you. But, to be sure, the president is only following time-honored Washington traditions when he makes both of these claims.

 

The Facts

 We asked an administration official for documentation that both Democrats and Republicans previously supported every single proposal in the jobs bill. We received an impressive-looking 30-page document, complete with quotes and links to bill votes and the like.

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Obama’s jobs speech: deja vu all over again?


(LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS)

“Pass this jobs bill”

— President Obama, Sept. 8, 2011

At first blush, President Obama’s jobs speech Thursday night did not present many opportunities for fact checking. He did not try to boast about what he had accomplished — given the grim economic situation that might have been a bad move — or try to place the blame for the current situation on his predecessor.

Many details about his jobs bill are still sparse. He tossed out various claims about how much Americans or businesses would receive in tax cuts, and the numbers appeared reasonable, but that’s why the details matter. We were amused that one specific construction project he cited — a bridge between Ohio and Kentucky — just happened to be the states of his two chief nemeses — House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

Certainly, Republicans might object to the way Obama framed some of the choices — “tax loopholes for oil companies” or “tax credits for small businesses.” Or “tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires” or “teachers back to work.” (Note: we generated some controversy some months back when we criticized the president for the “millionaires and billionaires” phrase.)

We note with approval that Obama changed his language on stalled trade bills. We recently gave him a Pinocchio for saying it was Congress’s fault, but in the speech he used more neutral language, saying “it’s time to clear the way for a series of trade agreements.” But his claim that regulatory reform will save “billions of dollars in the next few years” is dubious. Every president promises that.

The speech mostly gave us a sense of déjà vu. From the president’s language, you would never know that Congress already has acted under his watch to save jobs — the $800 billion stimulus plan passed shortly after he took office.

“Over the next two years, this plan will save or create 3.5 million jobs,” Obama proclaimed in a speech to a similar joint session of Congress on Feb. 24, 2009. We’re not sure about the jobs saved part, but the country has certainly not created net jobs since then — there are almost 2 million fewer jobs since he made those remarks 2 1/2 years ago. That gives a sense of the economic burden he will carry into his reelection campaign.

So here’s a pop quiz. Which of the following quotes came from the 2009 speech, and which quotes came from the speech this week?

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Obama’s whopper of a claim on tax cuts


(JASON REED/REUTERS)

“We said working folks deserved a break, so within one month of me taking office, we signed into law the biggest middle-class tax cut in history, putting more money into your pockets.”

— President Obama, Sept. 5, 2011

 

The president’s Labor Day speech in Detroit featured an assertion that contained a number of warning signs that it might be an errant fact: “biggest middle-class tax cut in history.”

 First of all, anytime a politician claims he or she has done something historic, watch your pockets. That’s usually a dubious claim.

 Then, “biggest” can mean all sorts of things. If we are talking about dollars, then are they inflation-adjusted or measured against the overall economy? Raw dollar figures are essentially meaningless without that context.

 Finally, the “middle-class” modifier. What’s the definition of “middle-class”? There are many ways one could slice and dice that classification.

 Clearly the president wants to demonstrate he’s a tax-cutter. And certainly White House officials have been frustrated that the $116 billion Making Work Pay tax cut was largely unnoticed by Americans.

 We decided to put the president’s claim to the test.

 

The Facts

We took an informal survey in our office and asked people what they thought the president’s statement meant. Everyone agreed he was claiming the biggest tax cut in terms of dollars. 

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The Fact Checker is away

The Fact Checker is taking a couple of days off in order to take Fact Checker Jr. off to college. The column will return Aug. 31.

In the meantime, we wanted to share a reader contribution — a fact check of the fact checker, so to speak. In a column last week, we referenced what we called “a standard definition of job creation” during a presidency — the number of jobs created in a president’s term. We’re not saying we agree with this definition, only that, as we have written, it is common in political ads.

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Obama’s claim that GOP is holding up trade deals


(Carolyn Kaster/AP)
“Let’s pass trade deals to level the playing field for our businesses. . . ..These are common-sense ideas – ideas that have been supported by both Democrats and Republicans. The only thing holding them back is politics. The only thing preventing us from passing these bills is the refusal by some in Congress to put country ahead of party. That’s the problem right now. That’s what’s holding this country back. That’s what we have to change.”

— President Obama, weekly address, Aug. 20, 2011

Those were pretty tough words by the president over the weekend — “the only thing preventing us from passing these bills is the refusal by some in Congress to put country ahead of party,” referring to bills he suggests are bottled up in Congress, including free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

Not so fast, cry the Republicans: The White House has never submitted the trade bills to Congress for approval. The issue is so confusing — and Obama has been demanding immediate action for so long — that one White House spokesman actually expressed surprise this month when reporters noted the trade bills have not been submitted.

“Have we not sent them over?” asked Josh Earnest, drawing laughter from the press corps. “I mean, look, clearly the legislative mechanics are something that I’m not intimately steeped in.”

To some extent, this is a chicken-or-egg question. The two sides are so far apart on so many issues that they can’t even agree what came first, though both sides do say that passage of the free-trade deals should be a priority.

The Facts

A key factor in the delay in submitting the trade pacts is something called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which was first created in 1962 to help workers and companies deal with the fallout from greater free trade. As the Congressional Research Service documented in an interesting report last month, TAA has frequently been tied to trade deals, in part to win Democratic votes for trade liberalization.

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A presidential bus tour of excuses?


(Carolyn Kaster/AP)

“Now, some of the challenges are not of our own making. We had reversed the recession, avoided a depression, got the economy moving again, created 2 million private sector jobs over the last 17 months. But over the last six months, we’ve had a run of bad luck, some things that we could not control. We had an Arab Spring that promises democracy and potentially a growth of human rights throughout the Middle East, but it also caused high gas prices that put a crimp on a lot of families just as they were trying to dig themselves out from the recession. Then we had a tsunami in Japan that disrupted supply chains and affected markets all around the world. And then in Europe, there are all kinds of challenges around the sovereign debt there, and that has made businesses hesitant and some of the effects of Europe have lapped onto our shores. And all those things have been headwinds for our economy.”

--President Obama, at a town hall meeting in Decorah, Iowa, Aug. 15, 2011

At nearly every stop during his bus tour of the Midwest, President Obama offered his listeners a variation of the quote above. His litany of “bad luck” usually served as a lead-up to an attack on congressional Republicans and their tactics during the debt ceiling debate. Depending on your point of view, the president’s words could be an explanation for the lagging economy—or an excuse.

The president has a serious political problem. It was only a year ago that the White House announced a “Recovery Summer,” designed to highlight all the jobs that officials said were being created through the stimulus legislation. Then a few months ago, a White House official said anemic job figures were just a “bump in the road.”

But the unemployment rate, after finally dipping below 9 percent earlier this year, is now back above that level. And that fact has hurt Obama in his approval ratings, with just 26 percent—a new low—approving of his handling of the economy, according to the latest Gallup poll.

So does the president’s explanation for the latest economic woes stand up to scrutiny?

The Facts

As we have noted previously, the president and his supporters have to cook the books a bit to make the job numbers sound good.

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Obama’s denial that Biden called tea party activists ‘terrorists’


(Associated Press)

Q: “I have a question.”

THE PRESIDENT: “Well, I — hold on a second. I’m looking over at this — sir —

Q: “How will we —

THE PRESIDENT: “Sir —

Q: “— come together when your vice president is calling the tea party terrorists?”

— An exchange between President Obama and Iowa Tea Party founder Ryan Rhodes during a town hall in Decorah, Iowa, Aug. 15, 2011

“He just denied it, he said the vice president didn’t make any of those assertions. He just doesn’t want to even admit what was on TV nationally — all over the place — then how can you have a conversation?”

— Rhodes, recounting a private conversation with Obama after the town hall.

This is an interesting journalistic conundrum. When does rumor become reality?

The report that Vice President Biden called tea party activists “terrorists” started with an item in Politico, reporting on a closed-door conversation between Democrats about the debt-ceiling agreement. A somewhat vague denial emerged from the vice president’s office, followed by a more forceful on-the-record denial from the vice president himself.

And yet the story continues to circulate, even though the major print media — such as The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal — never did their own stories confirming Biden’s alleged statement. We were struck by Rhodes’ comment that Biden’s comment was all over national TV, and therefore must be true, so how could the president deny it?

The Fact Checker was on vacation when this erupted, but a reader asked us to look at it again now that the president was confronted with a question about it during his Midwest bus tour.

The Facts

First of all, one reason why a story like this had legs is because it fits into the journalistic narrative of Biden as a gaffe machine. He seems to have a habit of saying inappropriate things at inappropriate moments, and so most journalists would say that if any senior administration official was going to call tea party activists terrorists, it would be Biden.

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Obama’s claim that the debt problem can ‘go away’


(Getty)

“And by the way, these choices are not radical. When it comes to getting a sustainable debt level, if we went back to the rates that existed when Bill Clinton was president and we made some modest adjustments to Medicare that preserved the integrity of the system, our long-term debt and deficit problems would go away. And most people here wouldn’t notice those changes.”

— President Obama, August 8, 2011

The president made these remarks during a fundraiser in Washington on Monday night, and they struck us as interesting, given the political turmoil in Washington over exactly how to reduce the federal budget deficit.

Would it really be that easy to make the debt problem “go away”?

The Facts

First of all, Obama seems to have misspoken when he said “get back to the rates that existed when Bill Clinton was president.” That suggests that he would eliminate all of the tax cuts enacted under George W. Bush, when his policy is to eliminate for people making more than $250,000 a year.

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Can President Obama keep paying Social Security benefits even if the debt ceiling is reached?


(Charles Dharapak/AP)
"I cannot guarantee that those checks go out on August 3rd if we haven't resolved this issue. Because there may simply not be the money in the coffers to do it.”

— President Obama, July 12, 2011

 ***

“So are we really going to start paying interest to Chinese who hold Treasuries and we're not going to pay folks their Social Security checks?”

— President Obama, June 30, 2011

The president’s language has evolved on whether $23 billion Social Security checks will get paid on Aug. 3, the day after the administration says the U.S. government will reach the debt limit.

 Last week, at a news conference, he suggested the Treasury could not make Social Security payments if it wanted to keep paying interest to bond holders and not default on the debt. Tuesday, in an interview with CBS News, he added some caveats — that there was no “guarantee” or that there “may” not be enough money.

 (If you look at the full exchange, which is at the bottom of this column, you will see Obama never directly answers a question about Social Security checks. He dodges it by saying, “This is not just a matter of Social Security checks. These are veterans’ checks, these are folks on disability and their checks. There are about 70 million checks that go out.”)

 Clearly, if the debt limit is reached, the nation’s finances would be pretty rocky. The Bipartisan Policy Center recently issued an interesting report that looks day by day at how much money would be going into the government and how much is committed to go out. On Aug. 3, for instance, the daily inflow is estimated to be $12 billion, compared to $32 billion in committed spending that day (most of which would be the Social Security checks.)

 But what if there is a way to keep paying Social Security benefits, despite hitting the debt ceiling?

The Facts

 The answer to this question is highly technical. The Bipartisan Policy Center report, which looked closely at the problem, is silent on this issue. We queried the administration about this when Obama made his statement last week, and got a confusing answer. In effect, we were told, the answer is complex but as a practical matter is no, because there would not be enough cash to pay benefits.

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Social Security and its role in the nation’s debt


(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
“As I’ve said, Social Security is not the primary driver of our long-term deficits and debt.”

— President Obama, July 11, 2011

“Social Security has never contributed a dime to the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt…not one penny to our federal budget deficit this year or any year in our nation’s history.”

— Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). July 8, 2011

President Obama, at a news conference Monday, continued to press for the “biggest deal possible” that would combine spending cuts and new tax revenue in order to reach an agreement on raising the debt limit. He made it clear that some sort of tinkering with Social Security could be on the table.

“It’s not an option for us to just sit by and do nothing,” Obama told reporters. “And if you’re a progressive who cares about the integrity of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, and believes that it is part of what makes our country great that we look after our seniors and we look after the most vulnerable, then we have an obligation to make sure that we make those changes that are required to make it sustainable over the long term.”

That kind of talk has some Democrats nervous. Rep. Xavier Becerra, vice chair of the House Democratic Congress, made a declarative statement last Friday that Social Security has “never contributed a dime” to the national debt, “not one penny” to the budget deficit this year. He feels so passionate about this fact that, after the Fact Checker called his office about the statement, Becerra immediately got on the phone himself to defend it, saying it does not deserve any Pinocchios.

Obama, in his news conference Monday, put it a little differently, saying, “Social Security is not the primary driver of our long-term deficits and debt.” That phrasing would suggest it contributes in some way to long-term deficits and debt, though not in a substantial way. Obama indicated he was focused on the future: “The reason to do Social Security is to strengthen Social Security to make sure that those benefits are there for seniors in the out-years,” he said.

So what’s going on here?

The Facts

Social Security was created in response to the pervasive poverty during the Great Depression. It is designed to provide workers with a basic level of income in retirement, as well as disability and life insurance while they work. Just over 60 percent of the 54 million beneficiaries are retired workers; the rest are disabled workers, dependents or survivors.

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Obama and Israel: stalled diplomacy or ‘suspicion and distrust’?


(Associated Press)
“He seems firmly and clearly determined to undermine our longtime friend and ally.  He’s treating Israel the same way so many European countries have: with suspicion, distrust and an assumption that Israel is at fault.”

— Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, June 2, 2011

***

 “Nowhere has President Obama’s lack of judgment been more stunning than in his dealings with Israel.  It breaks my heart that President Obama treats Israel, our great friend, as a problem, rather than as an ally.  …  Today the president doesn’t really have a policy toward the peace process.  He has an attitude.  And let’s be frank about what that attitude is:  he thinks Israel is the problem.  And he thinks the answer is always more pressure on Israel.”

— Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, June 27, 2011

***

   “I never will do what the president of the United States did to our ally in May. I will never say to Israel you must pull back your boundaries to the 1967 indefensible lines. I will not do that because I am here to declare today in Des Moines, Iowa, that I stand with Israel.”

— Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), July 2, 2011

The latest Gallup poll shows that President Obama has 60 percent approval rating among Jewish Americans. Jews generally are a reliable vote for Democrats, and in the 2008 election, exit polls show Obama received 78 percent of the Jewish vote. That gap has sent GOP hearts aflutter, though the polling should be viewed with caution; 60 percent approval is still 14 percent higher than the president’s overall approval rating.

 Still, GOP candidates for president sense an opening. A line attacking Obama and his policies on Israel is now a standard part of their stump speeches. The question is whether these attacks are fair or accurate?

 The Fact Checker delves into this issue with some trepidation. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has bedeviled presidents for decades and there are no easy answers. Both sides in the conflict have deeply held narratives about how things have come to this point.

We would be foolish to venture an opinion on each side’s collection of historical facts because, seriously, it is a no-win situation. But Obama’s treatment of Israel has become such a key part of the GOP arsenal that it is worth exploring the president’s performance.

 Obama, perhaps because of his name and his background, found his views on Israel under scrutiny even during the last election. He didn’t help matters then by making observations that antagonized some of Israel’s more loyal supporters: “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel.”

(Ironically, once he became president, Obama ended up with a Likud prime minister with whom he has had a testy relationship.)

Indeed, key congressional Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), recently have also been critical of Obama’s treatment of Israel. Congress is often very pro-Israel, but the comments by congressional Democrats give a bipartisan gloss to the critique.

 The Facts

The Israeli-Palestinian issue is often considered a central test of a president’s diplomatic skills. Former president George W. Bush was criticized for appearing to ignore the issue until the last months of his administration; he was reacting in part to the unsuccessful, last-gasp efforts of Bill Clinton to strike a deal. Obama decided to take on the challenge from day one, appointing a special envoy to prod the parties toward peace. 

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Obama’s tax boo-boo at the Twitter town hall — and a response to readers’ questions


(Charles Dharapak/AP)
"I actually worked with Speaker Boehner to pass a payroll tax cut in December that put an extra $1,000 in the pockets of almost every single American."

 ***

  "In exchange, we were able to get this payroll tax that put $1,000 -- tax cut that put $1,000 in the pockets of every American, which would help economic growth and jobs."

 ***

"The payroll tax cut that we passed in December put an extra thousand dollars in the pockets of every family in America."

— President Obama, July 6, 2011, in the “Twitter Town Hall”

We were off Wednesday so we are a day late looking at the president’s “Twitter Town Hall.” The quotes above jumped out at us because the president had some difficulty remembering his talking point, since he frames the impact of this year’s payroll tax cut three different ways.

 Take your pick: The tax cut gave $1,000 to “almost every single American.” Or it “put $1,000 in the pockets of every American.” Or it “put an extra thousand dollars in the pockets of every family in America.”

 The president hit the trifecta. None of those assertions is correct.

 The president also brought up “millionaires and billionaires” again, as he did in his news conference, when he asserted:  “If all we do is just go back to the pre-Bush tax cut rates for the top income brackets, for millionaires and billionaires, that would raise hundreds of billions of dollars. And if you combine it with the cuts we’ve already proposed, we could solve our deficit and our debt problems.”

 We think it is a stretch to claim that the president $4 trillion-”framework” would “solve our deficit and our debt problems,” but assuming there are none of the usual budget gimmicks it certainly would be an improvement over his initial budget.

 But the reference to “millionaires” also allows us to address the many reader questions we have received since we reviewed the president’s news conference last week and criticized him for not making clear that he would raise taxes on couples making an adjusted gross income of more than $250,000 a year (singles would face the higher taxes at $200,000 AGI.)

 A number of readers asserted we had made a mistake because, they said, most people making more than $200,000 or $250,000 have a net worth of more than $1 million, thus making them “millionaires.” This is an interesting question and worthy of further discussion.

 

The Facts

The December agreement between the White House and congressional Republicans cut the Social Security payroll tax from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. In other words, for every dollar a person earns, they would keep two cents that ordinarily go to pay for Social Security. (No tax is paid on any income over $106,800.) 

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The missing facts in President Obama’s news conference


(Carolyn Kaster/AP)
“The tax cuts I'm proposing we get rid of are tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, tax breaks for oil companies and hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners.”

— President Obama, June 29, 2011

A feisty President Obama met with reporters Wednesday — a sure sign that the dispute over the debt limit has reached a critical stage.

The president, clearly intending to increase pressure on the GOP, lambasted Republicans for, in his words, refusing to get rid of “tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires” before cutting aid to the less well-off. He also addressed questions on Libya.

Let’s parse some of his answers and explain what he means — and how factual he was.

 “The tax cuts I'm proposing we get rid of are tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, tax breaks for oil companies and hedge fund managers and corporate jet owner. . . . Before we ask our seniors to pay more for health care, before we cut our children's education, before we sacrifice our commitment to the research and innovation that will help create more jobs in the economy, I think it's only fair to ask an oil company or a corporate jet owner that has done so well to give up that tax break that no other business enjoys.”

The White House and Congress have been looking for ways to cut the deficit over 10 years by $2 trillion to $4 trillion. Republicans want to cut spending, while Democrats have sought ways to increase revenues — a nonstarter for most Republicans.

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Explaining the debt ceiling debate


(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
“It isn't true that the government would default on its debt because, very simply, the treasury secretary can pay the interest on the debt first and then, from there, we have to just prioritize our spending…. It is scare tactics because, Bob, the interest on the debt isn't any more than 10 percent of what we're taking in. In fact, it's less than that. And so the treasury secretary can very simply pay the interest on the debt first, then we're not in default. ”

— Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), June 26, 2011, on CBS’s “Face the Nation”

 

“If we never raise the debt ceiling again, we're going to pay our bills, we're going to pay Social Security. …We won't default. We'll be going back to budget levels of about eight years ago.”

— Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), June 26, on CNN’s “State of the Union”

 

“If Congress fails to increase the debt limit, the government would default on its legal obligations – an event unprecedented in American history. This would cause investors here and around the world to doubt, for the first time, whether the United States will meet its commitments. That would precipitate a self-inflicted financial crisis potentially more severe than the one from which we are now recovering.”

— Treasury Department fact sheet, “Debt Limit: Myth v. Fact”

Confused about the debt-limit debate?

 This is turning into one of those classic Washington showdowns: A political event is being forced by an extremely technical matter that few really understand. The debt limit is really what filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock used to call a “MacGuffin” — a device used to propel the plot forward, even though it may be meaningless.

 Congress instituted the debt limit back in 1917, during World War I, so that it could stop having to approve every single spending request by the Treasury — but still have a measure of control over spending.

 Even under the most conservative budget plans, the United States would have to keep adding to the national debt in order to meet all sorts of current obligations, such as Social Security payments, Medicare and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So the debt limit will have to be raised, one way or the other.

 But lawmakers are using the pending breach of the debt limit, currently estimated to be in early August, to force the administration to accept significant cuts in spending. (Republicans have ruled out raising taxes.)

 That’s their prerogative. In Washington, there is apparently nothing wrong with playing politics with the debt limit. When he was a senator, President Obama famously refused to approve a debt limit increase in 2006 without a plan to reduce the deficit. Now, he calls that  “a political vote.”

 In any case, we have now reached the stage where some lawmakers — see the Bachmann and DeMint quotes above — shrug off the potential consequences of not reaching an agreement in August. But the Treasury Department warns that this event would be “unprecedented” and three credit-rating agencies — Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch — have warned the United States could lose its triple-A credit rating if a deal is not reached by August 2.

 

The Facts

 “Unprecedented” may be a stretch. There are actually three instances when the United States could be seen to have defaulted on its obligations — in 1790, in 1933 and in 1971.

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Has the long-term fiscal challenge not gotten worse in the past two years?


(Mark Wilson/GETTY IMAGES)
"On the budget, we have known about the long-run fiscal challenge facing the country for 40-plus years, and that problem has not gotten materially worse in the last two years. That problem is rooted in the aging of the population, the acceleration of health care costs, and I would argue, some of the tax policy choices made in the 2000's."

--Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, June 10, 2011

 

On the face of it, this comment that the nation’s fiscal challenge “has not gotten materially worse in the past two years” appears strange--and certainly provocative.

 Indeed, when Austan Goolsbee, one of President Obama’s chief economic aides, made this assertion this month, one reporter covering his speech felt compelled to note: “The national debt has increased from $10.4 trillion to $14.3 trillion since Obama took office in 2009.”

 Still, Goolsbee’s comment raises an interesting question. As negotiations to reach a budget deal heat up before the United States breaches its debt limit, are lawmakers and administration officials too focused on the recent run-up in the debt?  There have been some proposals this year to deal with long-term health costs—notably the controversial House Republican plan for Medicare—but overall the debate has revolved around current spending.

 A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, defended Goolsbee’s comment as not controversial at all.

 “The baby boom's implication for future imbalance has been documented for decades and has gotten two years closer but the demographics haven't changed,” the official said. “The deficits caused by the business cycle over the last two years and the added debt only impacts our long run fiscal situation by, essentially, the interest we pay on the additional debt. The $10 to $14 trillion is not the long run fiscal challenge.”

 So we decided to test the question of whether the fiscal challenge has gotten “materially worse” under President Obama. We will try not to get too wonky.

 

The Facts

 Both left-leaning and right-leaning economists agreed that the best source for the answer to this question are regular studies on the fiscal challenge done largely by Alan Auerbach, an economics professor at University of California at Berkeley, and William Gale, an expert on federal economic policy at the Brookings Institution.  

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Obama’s ‘mission accomplished’ speech on Afghanistan?


(Associated Press)
“Along with our surge, our allies also increased their commitments, which helped stabilize more of the country. Afghan security forces have grown by over 100,000 troops, and in some provinces and municipalities we have already begun to transition responsibility for security to the Afghan people. In the face of violence and intimidation, Afghans are fighting and dying for their country, establishing local police forces, opening markets and schools, creating new opportunities for women and girls, and trying to turn the page on decades of war.”

— President Obama, June 22, 2011

President Obama’s speech Wednesday night announcing that over the next 15 months he would remove the “surge” troops from Afghanistan had an air of inevitability about it. When the president announced the surge in December 2009, he said that they would begin coming home in July 2011. He added a caveat — “we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground” — but the message was clear that some troops would be coming home. The only question was how many.

The decision to remove 10,000 at first leaves commanders significant flexibility this summer, allowing them to keep as many combat troops as possible and focus on rotating out support personnel. The pledge to remove another 23,000 troops by next September — in time for the presidential election — may be more difficult, since many troops apparently will be packing up to go home when they could instead be in the thick of the summer fighting season. The military experts will have a field day with these questions.

We were curious how the president justified having achieved the right conditions on the ground — have “met our goals,” as he put it. The speech actually provided little insight into his thought process and did not provide a decision tree. Instead he asserted “al-Qaeda is under more pressure than at any time since 9/11” and he cited the killing of Osama bin Laden and information obtained from bin Laden’s lair.

Then, he made the statement above. The statistics are a bit unclear, but Obama’s claims appeared to be cut from the same rhetoric cloth that former President George W. Bush used to claim progress in Iraq.

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Head-spinning job gain (and loss) claims by the DNC and RNC


(William B. Plowman/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

“When President Obama took office, the month before he was inaugurated, the economy was bleeding 750,000 jobs a month, David. And we were not headed in the right direction. …You fast-forward two and a half years later now, and the economy has created 2.1 million private sector jobs.”

— Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” June 12, 2011

“The Chairwoman is living in Fantasyland. We know that the facts are the facts, and we can’t get away from that, and Barack Obama is defenseless to the truth on what’s going on in the American economy. We have lost 2.5 million jobs since Barack Obama has been president.”

— Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, moments later on the same program

A reader who watched NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday found his head spinning as the DNC chief and the RNC chief battled with dueling factoids about the employment record under President Obama. He was particularly amused that Wasserman Schultz said there were 2 million more jobs and Priebus asserted there were 2.5 million fewer jobs.

Whew, that’s a swing of nearly 5 million jobs in just a few seconds! He had wanted host David Gregory to call for a stop in the debate and have the two party chiefs explain themselves. They can’t both be right, can they?

Amazingly, they are. Priebus is on more solid ground, rhetorically, but both are cherry-picking the statistics to make the best possible case for their side.

The Facts

The recession that greeted Obama when he took office was one of the worst recessions since the end of World War II. It started in December 2007, but the bottom really fell out in late 2008, after the investment firm Lehman Brothers collapsed—a moment that probably sealed Obama’s victory.

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President Obama’s phony accounting on the auto industry bailout


(Charles Dharapak/AP)

“Chrysler has repaid every dime and more of what it owes American taxpayers for their support during my presidency.”

— President Obama, June 4, 2011

This post has been updated.

With some of the economic indicators looking a bit dicey, President Obama traveled to Ohio last week to tout what the administration considers a good-news story: the rescue of the domestic automobile industry. In fact, he also made it the subject of his weekly radio address.

We take no view on whether the administration’s efforts on behalf of the automobile industry were a good or bad thing; that’s a matter for the editorial pages and eventually the historians. But we are interested in the facts the president cited to make his case.

What we found is one of the most misleading collections of assertions we have seen in a short presidential speech. Virtually every claim by the president regarding the auto industry needs an asterisk, just like the fine print in that too-good-to-be-true car loan.

Let’s look at the claims in the order in which the president said them.

“Chrysler has repaid every dime and more of what it owes American taxpayers for their support during my presidency — and it repaid that money six years ahead of schedule.  And this week, we reached a deal to sell our remaining stake. That means soon, Chrysler will be 100 percent in private hands.”

Wow, “every dime and more” sounds like such a bargain. Not only did Chrysler pay back the loan, with interest — but the company paid back even more than they owed. Isn’t America great or what?

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A rare Geppetto for Paul Ryan’s assertion on Obama’s hidden top marginal tax rate


(Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg)

“I say that, at a time when the tax burden on the wealthy is at its lowest level in half a century, the most fortunate among us can afford to pay a little more.”

— President Obama, April 13, 2011

“The president says he wants to eliminate deductions, but he also wants to raise rates. That includes raising the top rate to 44.8 percent.” 

— Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), May 16, 2011

Ryan’s speech to the Economic Club of Chicago on Monday caught our attention with its figure of a top marginal tax rate of almost 45 percent. Generally, the media’s coverage of the president’s 2012 budget has focused on Obama’s desire to return the top tax rate to 39.6 percent, the same as it was before the Bush-era tax cuts.

The top rate is currently 35 percent. So when President Obama said in his speech on fiscal policy last month that the wealthy (those making above $390,050 a year) would “pay a little more,” we thought he meant an extra 4.6 percent. But Ryan is suggesting the increase is much more than that.

Who’s right?

The Facts

The president framed his statement by claiming the tax burden on the wealthy is “at its lowest level in half a century.” It’s certainly among the lowest periods, but not the lowest, according to a 2010 Congressional Budget Office study that examined average tax rates over the past three decades.

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Netanyahu’s blunt message to Obama on Palestinian refugees


(Associated Press)

“I think it's time to tell the Palestinians forthrightly it's not going to happen.”

— Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, May 20, 2011

While much of the focus on Obama’s Middle East speech Thursday was on his reference to the “1967 lines,” a less noticed aspect of his address was how he dealt with the question of where Palestinian refugees should settle after a possible peace deal.

 He didn’t. And that clearly hit a nerve with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

 In his speech, the president put the issue of Palestinian refugees to the side, saying that negotiations should focus first on the questions of borders and security.

“I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees,” Obama said.

Compare that phrasing to what then-President George W. Bush said in a 2004 letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: “It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.”

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Understanding Obama’s shift on Israel and the ‘1967 lines’


(JASON REED/REUTERS)

“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

— President Obama, May 19, 2011

This sentence in President Obama’s much-anticipated speech on the Middle East caused much consternation Thursday among supporters of the Jewish state. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who will meet with Obama on Friday, adamantly rejected it.

For people not trained in the nuances of Middle East diplomacy, the sentence might appear unremarkable. However, many experts say it represents a significant shift in U.S. policy, and it is certainly a change for the Obama administration.

As is often the case with diplomacy, the context and the speaker are nearly as important as the words. Ever since the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, it has been clear that peace with the Palestinians would be achieved through some exchange of land for security.

Indeed, Israelis and Palestinians have held several intensive negotiations that involved swapping lands along the Arab-Israeli dividing line that existed before the 1967 war — technically known as the Green Line, or the boundaries established by the 1949 Armistice agreements. (Click here for a visual description of the swaps discussed between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008.)

So, in many ways, it is not news that the eventual borders of a Palestinian state would be based on land swaps from the 1967 dividing line. But it makes a difference when the president of the United States says it, particularly in a carefully staged speech at the State Department.  This then is not an off-the-cuff remark, but a carefully considered statement of U.S. policy.

Here is a tour through the diplomatic thicket, and how U.S. language on this issue has evolved over the years.

The Facts

The pre-1967 lines are important to both sides for setting the stage for eventual negotiations, but for vastly different reasons.

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Obama administration boasting about border security


((AP/Charles Dharapak))

“Under Secretary Napolitano’s leadership, we have strengthened border security beyond what many believed was possible. They wanted more agents on the border. Well, we now have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history.  The Border Patrol has 20,000 agents – more than twice as many as there were in 2004, a build up that began under President Bush and that we have continued.”

--President Obama, May 10, 2011

 

President Obama traveled to El Paso, Tex., Tuesday to give a speech on immigration, even though virtually no one in Washington thinks there is any desire in Congress to tackle the issue.  For that reason, as colleague Chris Cillizza noted on “The Fix,” the speech should be understood as “a political document rather than a policy one.”

 In that context, it’s important for the president to demonstrate he is working hard to improve border security. We were struck by the section above, in part because it sought to claim credit for a doubling of agents but also acknowledged a debt to former president George W. Bush. (We will not delve in the historical question of whether “more boots on the ground” is accurate, since our colleagues at Politifact.com did a fine job of exploring that question last year.)

 How much did the Obama administration do on this issue?

 

The Facts

 The Border Patrol, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, is responsible for patrolling the borders with Canada and Mexico, as well as coastal waters around Florida, but the majority of its agents — 85 percent — are focused on the southern border with Mexico. At the time of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there were slightly more than 9,000 Border Patrol agents.

  

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Was Osama bin Laden ‘not a Muslim leader’?


(Achmad Ibrahim/AP - Indonesian painter S. Wito wipes his painting of Osama bin Laden and former U.S. president George W. Bush at his street-side studio in Jakarta, Indonesia.)

"Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, Al-Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity."

--President Obama, May 1, 2011

A reader questioned this assertion by President Obama when he made the dramatic announcement Sunday night that U.S. forces in Pakistan had killed Osama bin Laden. “The Fact Checker should let the American people know that the president has his facts wrong,” he said.

 The reader wrote that “bin Laden took inspiration from and was guided by his interpretation of the Koran. He considered himself a devout Muslim, and he was considered a Muslim leader by many Muslims.”

 The reader added that “it is a non sequitur for Mr. Obama to deny that Bin Laden was a Muslim leader because he was a mass murderer and Al Qaeda killed many Muslims. There is nothing in the a priori that says that a mass murderer and killer of many Muslims cannot be a Muslim leader.”

 This is an interesting question, worthy of debate.

 

The Facts

Obama said that bin Laden was not a Muslim leader after he emphasized that “our war is not against Islam.” In many ways, it was a rhetorical statement, allowing the president to disconnect bin Laden’s terrorist actions from his religious beliefs.

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How much credit does Obama get for bin Laden’s reported death?


(Brendan Smialowski/Pool via Bloomberg )

“Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.”

--President Barack Obama, May 2, 2011

No, we cannot confirm that Osama bin Laden is dead. Perhaps that’s the ultimate fact check. He’s reportedly been buried at sea but we’re still waiting for a photograph of the body, an official DNA test, something like that.  The Pentagon says bin Laden’s wife identified him by name. For the conspiracy buffs out there, however, clearly something happened Sunday in Abbottabad—see the tweets of Sohaib Athar.

 Let’s just say any White House is pretty careful about having the president making a dramatic announcement late on a Sunday night. If any evidence emerges to cast doubt on this achievement, Obama would be a laughingstock.

 But this does bring up another question: How much credit does Obama deserve for this achievement? And how much will he get?

 

The Facts

 The president’s statement was notably spare on details, but he clearly thinks he should get a lot of credit. He noted that bin Laden had “avoided capture” for many years and emphasized that “shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al-Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.” 

  Then follow a lot of other “I” sentences. “I was briefed….I met repeatedly…I determined…today, at my direction, the United States launched…”  Former President George W. Bush is not mentioned until Obama noted that he had made clear this was not a war against Islam.

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The Obama administration’s odd claims on export growth


(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

“We are working to meet President Obama’s National Export Initiative goal of doubling exports by the end of 2014. I’m pleased to report our efforts are getting results. Exports were up 17 percent last year. Increased exports have contributed to 13 straight months of overall private-sector job growth, which has added a total of 1.8 million overall private-sector jobs.”

— U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, April 28

With great fanfare in his 2010 State of the Union speech, President Obama announced that he was starting a new initiative to double the nation’s exports within five years.

But on the very day that U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk declared progress on the president’s pledge, in a speech to the Washington International Trade Association, the Commerce Department reported disappointing growth in the overall U.S. economy, in part because net export growth was essentially flat.

So what’s going on here? (Warning: Lots of numbers ahead.)

The Facts

Economics is not an exact science. But certain principles hold true over the years. We headed to the basement to pull off the shelf an economics text from graduate school, “Understanding International Economics: Theory and Practice,” by J. David Richardson (1980). There, on page 243, was the following statement:

“Somewhat crudely, exports generate employment and upward pressure on prices; imports take away employment but hold down prices.”

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Donald Trump in New Hampshire amid ‘birther’ madness

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

  “Today, I am very proud of myself because I have accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish. I was just informed...that our president has finally released a birth certificate. …He should have done it a long time ago…when the Clintons asked for it.”

--Donald Trump, April 27, 2011

“CNN did a poll -- CNN did a poll recently where Obama and I are statistically tied. If you would like, I can send it to you. Just call up CNN.”

--Trump, April 27, 2011

“I am a Republican. I'm a very strong Republican. And I have been a Republican for a long while. And I'm proud of it.”

--Trump, April 27, 2011

“The other question I ask is this, we get no oil from Libya. We get no oil…China, taking over the world gets a big portion of its oil from Libya. They're Libya's biggest customers.”

--Trump, April 27, 2011

“During that entire week, the dominant news story wasn't about these huge, monumental choices that we're going to have make as a nation; it was about my birth certificate. And that was true on most of the news outlets that were represented here.”

--President Obama, April 27, 2011

President Obama released a copy of his so-called “long-form” birth certificate Wednesday, and prospective GOP candidate Donald Trump promptly took credit when his plane landed in New Hampshire. During his news conference, the self-proclaimed billionaire made a series of statements that cry out for checking.

 The president, in his brief statement, also made a comment that seems to stretch the facts, so we will look at that as well. 

The Facts

 We will grant Trump his belief that he forced the administration to release this document with his constant demands in the last month to see the original birth certificate.

 White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, in a news briefing, acknowledged that the president acted because “in recent weeks, the issue has risen again.” Obama himself couldn’t resist a sharp dig clearly aimed at Trump: “We're not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by side shows and carnival barkers.”

 

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How effective are sanctions in ‘changing behavior’?


((AP Photo/Charles Dharapak))

“What we have seen is that sanctions can put pressure on governments and regimes to change their behavior.”

--White House spokesman Jay Carney, April 25, 2011

The Obama administration is strongly suggesting it will impose “targeted sanctions” on Syria in response to the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations. But Syria is already subject to a wide range of U.S. sanctions, and trade between the countries amounts to less than $1 billion a year.

 The administration apparently is hoping that a U.S. push will persuade Europeans allies—which have deeper ties to Damascus—to impose their own, more painful sanctions. The possible announcement of fresh sanctions also appears to be intended to signal resolve against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who the administration once had wooed as a possible partner in a comprehensive Middle East peace deal.

 Carney’s assertion raises a question: Do sanctions actually convince countries to change their behavior?

The Facts

 The United States has repeatedly sanctioned Syria. There are specific laws such as the 2000 Iran and Syria Nonproliferation Act and 2003 Syria Accountability Act, both of which have been implemented with a series of executive orders, including several to target Assad’s inner circle.

But the Congressional Research Service lists a number of other sanctions that also apply to Syria, including (among others): the International Security Assistance and Arms Export Control Act of 1976; the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977; the Export Administration Act of 1979 (which puts Syria on the terrorism list); Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1989; the Anti-Terrorism and Arms Export Control Amendments Act of 1989 and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. 

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Obama plays the tax card


(Mark Wilson/Pool via Bloomberg )

“We don’t have a problem with our budget because Americans don’t pay enough taxes. We have problems with our budget because we spend too much money.”

— Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, April 13, 2011

“Most people understand that Washington doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem. We can’t raise taxes.”

— House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), April 13, 2011

“They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that’s paid for by asking 33 seniors to each pay $6,000 more in health costs? That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m president.”

— President Obama, April 13, 2011

The battle is now joined. After being AWOL from the long-term budget debate when he unveiled his 2012 budget, the president decided to match Ryan’s budget proposal introduced last week with his own vision of how to tackle the nation’s rising debt load.

The president spoke Wednesday in broad strokes, with few specifics, but the major philosophical difference with Republicans is this: higher taxes are on the table and major structural changes to key health programs such as Medicare and Medicaid are not. By contrast, Ryan would not accept higher taxes and in fact would lower them — and has proposed ideas that would fundamentally reshape Medicare and Medicaid.

Indeed, the details of how Obama gets to his claimed $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 12 years are less important than this coming philosophical battle. In his 2012 budget, he had already claimed $1 trillion in deficit reduction that we found dubious. This new plan essentially adds another $1 trillion in claimed spending cuts to that figure, with about 40 percent coming from cuts to defense that were not in the initial budget. He then gets $1 trillion in interest savings and $1 trillion from tax increases.

What do the data show about whether the nation has a revenue or a spending problem—and will it make a difference in the coming budget debate?

The Facts

Simply going by the numbers, the United States has a revenue problem. It also has a spending problem.

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‘Biggest cuts in U.S. history’? Well, no.


(J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

“This agreement between Democrats and Republicans, on behalf of all Americans, is on a budget that invests in our future while making the largest annual spending cut in our history. “

— President Obama, April 8, 2011

“This week, Congress is moving toward approval of an agreement on the largest spending cut in history to help begin to create a better environment for private-sector job growth.”

— House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), USA Today op-ed, April 11, 2011

“Biggest Cuts in U.S. History”

—Washington Post front-page headline, April 9, 2011

After a tense few weeks over haggling over the fiscal 2011 budget, the White House and congressional lawmakers cinched a deal that will result in $38.5 billion in cuts. As the quotes above indicate, they then quickly claimed credit for another historic achievement. Even the news media got into the act, echoing the claims.

The Fact Checker, however, is wary of raw numbers. Thanks to inflation, dollars (and budgets) get bigger every year. For instance, retail gasoline cost about 25 cents in 1918 and is estimated to average about $3.70 this year. That sounds like a huge jump, until you realize that the inflation-adjusted price of gasoline in 1918 is $3.61. That’s the proper comparison.

So, how “historic” is this achievement?

The Facts

By any measure, $38.5 billion is a big number, especially when the cuts are squeezed into the rest of the year. But the budget is pretty big too — some $3.8 trillion. So let’s see how these figures stack up against the days when the budget numbers were smaller. Hang on, there are lots of figures.

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Kicking the tires on Obama’s energy speech


(JIM YOUNG - Reuters)

“It was just three years ago that gas prices topped $4 a gallon. I remember because I was in the middle of a presidential campaign. Working folks certainly remember because it hit a lot of people pretty hard. And because we were at the height of political season, you had all kinds of slogans and gimmicks and outraged politicians — they were waving their three-point plans for $2 a gallon gas.  You remember that — ‘drill, baby, drill’ — and we were going through all that. And none of it was really going to do anything to solve the problem. There was a lot of hue and cry, a lot of fulminating and hand-wringing, but nothing actually happened. Imagine that in Washington.”

— President Obama, March 30, 2011

 

With gasoline prices soaring to $4 a gallon, President Obama delivered Wednesday a major address on energy policy — as well as an ad-libbed dig at Sarah Palin. Let’s take a tour through some of his numbers and assertions.

(At the end, we will also examine an interesting, Pinocchio-worthy fact in a preemptive floor speech on energy by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.)

“And today I want to announce a new goal — one that is reasonable, one that is achievable, and one that is necessary. When I was elected to this office, America imported 11 million barrels of oil a day. By a little more than a decade from now, we will have cut that by one-third. That is something that we can achieve. We can cut our oil dependence — we can cut our oil dependence by a third.”

Under this goal, the United States would only be importing 7.25 million barrels a day by 2025. If you look at the current statistics, net imports dropped to 9.4 million in 2010, but that is largely because of the recession. As Obama acknowledged elsewhere in his speech, “now that the economy is recovering, demand is back up.”

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The missing context in Obama’s speech on Libya


((Dennis Brack/via BLOOMBERG))

“The fact is, close to five years after 9/11 and fifteen years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States still lacks a coherent national security policy. Instead of guiding principles, we have what appear to be a series of ad hoc decisions, with dubious results. Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur? …Are we committed to use force wherever there’s a despotic regime that’s terrorizing its people—and if so, how long do we stay to ensure democracy takes root? …Perhaps someone inside the White House has clear answers to these questions. But our allies—and for that matter our enemies—certainly don’t know what the answers are. More important, neither do the American people. Without a well-articulated strategy that the public supports and the world understands, America will lack the legitimacy—and ultimately the power—it needs to make the world safer than it is today.”

--Barack Obama. “The Audacity of Hope” (2006), page 302.

 

“We don’t get very hung up on this question of precedent. We don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent.”—Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, March 28, 2011

 

     We present the quotes above as another example of how things can look very different from inside the White House than from the outside. In his book, then-Senator Obama asks a number of pointed questions about how and why a president decides to send U.S. troops into an armed conflict. It’s not clear that President Obama provided the answers in his speech to the nation on the Libyan conflict Monday night. It was certainly hard to discern something akin to an “Obama doctrine.”

In terms of fact-checking the president’s speech, we did not find any major errors. But some elements of the speech require some further context.

    “ For more than four decades, the Libyan people have been ruled by a tyrant, Moammar Gaddafi. He has denied his people freedom, exploited their wealth, murdered opponents at home and abroad, and terrorized innocent people around the world, including Americans who were killed by Libyan agents.”

This is all true, but Obama neglected to say that in recent years, Gaddafi had been rehabilitated. In a deal with the Bush administration, he gave up his nascent weapons of mass destruction and paid $2.7 billion to settle claims relating to the Libyan-directed bombing of Pan Am 103.

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On Libya, where you stand depends on where you sit


(Associated Press)

“The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation

— Sen. Barack Obama, interview with the Boston Globe published Dec. 20. 2007

 

“The Constitution is clear: Except in response to an attack or the imminent threat of attack, only Congress may authorize war and the use of force.”

— Sen. Joe Biden, interview with the Boston Globe published Dec. 20, 2007

“I do not believe that the President can take military action — including any kind of strategic bombing — against Iran without congressional authorization.”

— Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, interview with the Boston Globe published Dec. 20, 2007

 

The United States does not have a parliamentary system, but an old parliamentary adage — where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit, whether on the opposition benches or the government (Treasury) benches — certainly seems appropriate these days.

As the quotes from the 2008 presidential campaign above show, three key decision-makers in the attacks against Libyan air defenses appeared to believe then that congressional authorization is needed before military action can commence. That, of course, was when they were all U.S. senators — not members of the executive branch.

Meanwhile, former House speaker Newt Gingrich appeared to twist himself in knots as he first called for a no-fly zone when Obama was ambivalent and then attacked Obama for the intervention after it was launched. Other potential GOP presidential candidates have also viewed skeptically the military intervention, which one senses might not have been the case if a Republican were president.

Is the president’s action in Libya consistent with his 2007 statement?

The Facts

Boston Globe reporter Charles Savage (now with the New York Times) asked each presidential candidate a simple question:

“In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? (Specifically, what about the strategic bombing of suspected nuclear sites — a situation that does not involve stopping an IMMINENT threat?)”

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Libya, Obama and the tragedy in Darfur


More than 70,000 people have fled fighting in Sudan's western Darfur region in the last three months, swelling numbers at a major refugee camp by more than a third. ( Olivier Chassot - UNAMID via Reuters)

“The Arab League wanted us to do something. The minute we did something, the Arab League began criticizing us doing it. I think that, you know, two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a lot. I think that the problem we have in Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen — you go around the region. We could get engaged, by this standard, in all sorts of places. Sudan has been killing — the Sudanese government has been killing people in Darfur for years and years, and somehow all the major powers avoided thinking about it. I’m just suggesting to you there’s no standard here.”

--Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), March 23, 2011

Newt Gingrich, who is mulling a run for the presidency, put his finger on a conundrum of leadership during an interview Wednesday on NBC’s “Today Show.” What makes a crisis worthy of military intervention — and when? Can a president really rely on a one-size-fits-all standard, or do the circumstances at the moment matter the most? There is really no easy answer. (We’ll leave aside the question of whether Gingrich flip-flopped with his Libya comments.)

Take the issue of Sudan’s Darfur province, for instance. Sudan borders Libya, and Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, last year became the first head of state to be indicted for genocide. (Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, by contrast, has merely been referred to the International Criminal Court.)

We would differ a little with Gingrich’s comment that “all the major powers avoided thinking about it.” The problem is not that major powers avoided thinking about Darfur; it is that they avoided doing much about it, despite deaths in the hundreds of thousands — dwarfing anything done by Gaddafi and his forces in recent weeks.

Indeed, Darfur is a tragic example of the large gap that can exist between a presidential candidate’s rhetoric and a president’s performance once elected. We will look at this foreign-policy problem as part of an occasional effort to provide context about issues in the news.

The Facts

Sudan has known little but civil conflict since its independence more than a half-century ago, especially between the largely Arab, Islamic northern part of the country and the largely animist and Christian African south. The government located in Khartoum controlled much of the country’s wealth (especially oil riches) and had imposed sharia law.

The North-South conflict lasted more than two decades, leaving 2 million people dead, primarily from famine and disease, and 4 million homeless, before then-President George W. Bush succeeded in forging a tenuous peace agreement between the two sides in 2004.

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Obama and the White House’s ‘halfway’ fixation with the budget


(White House)
“My administration has already put forward specific cuts that meet congressional Republicans halfway. And I’m prepared to do more.”

— President Obama, weekly radio address, March 5, 2011

The White House was not happy last week when we gave two Pinocchios to Democrats for persistently saying they have gone “halfway” to GOP proposals on cutting the 2011 fiscal year budget. We also suggested that the “halfway” phrase would be worth more Pinocchios if President Obama began to use it.

He did so in his weekly radio address, but not before the White House gave the Fact Checker a bunch of data and charts trying to make the administration’s case for using the phrase. So let’s review the issue again, and see how persuasive their argument is.

The Facts

It really comes down to where you draw the line — the budget baseline. Democrats like to draw the line at the president’s proposal for 2011, even though it was never enacted. Under that measure, Republicans would cut about $100 billion and Democrats some $50 billion. That’s where the “halfway” comes from.

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